Dissertation: Flip the Script! first full playtest

adventures in gaming, critical making, dissertation, reflective games, research

Since my last post, I’ve been doing a lot of reading in order to revise an article for a journal. I also wrote a draft of the full rules for Flip the Script! The week before last, I got to talk about them with the Reflective Games Group, and run through some of the rules, which led me to rewrite my section on intersectionality. This week, we did a full playtest (which I recorded the audio for).

The playtest went well, on the whole, but I was astounded to find that the run time was two hours, and I will have to find a way to streamline that amount of time in the future. It’s just too long to reasonably expect most festival players to commit to.

The major revisions that I plan to make other than trying to streamline the introductory parts is to try to use the LED interfaces in a different way. Squinky and I had criticized another puppet interface for just being buttons on the puppets’ heads that did things in game, and it’s true that this interface isn’t as embedded into the puppets as I originally envisioned. The truth is that I didn’t want to embed the electronics in places where I couldn’t easily access them, in the end, and so we’ve got this current version where the electronics aren’t even really sewn onto the puppets. And I’ve made my peace with that — it’s a different game than what I thought it would be in terms of its use of technology.

But, at the moment, there was very little reason for players to use the technology, and players rightly suggested that maybe offloading more onto the tech and getting it more involved would do good things for the game. It was also suggested that maybe I could have my own microbit to send signals, especially if the meaning of those signals changed (like perhaps the players could switch roles, or a new character is introduced — maybe I could make each of these into a more formalized rule for each round, sort of like the way that the games change in “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” — I don’t know why that specific reference comes to mind except that it’s the same general concept each time, with specific rules for each individual game/scene. Another interesting idea that came up was what it would be like to play my other nanolarps using puppets instead of having the players play themselves.

It also occurs to me that I wound up using a blackboard to record notes from the session where all the players could see them this time, and that I will want to do that in the future. That means I’ll have to get a carry-on sized whiteboard (possibly at the dollar store, possibly a picture frame with plastic or glass in the frame?) to do so in the future.

The subject that we wound up discussing in this game was the concept of the “good” migrant, explicitly asking “what does it mean to be a ‘good’ migrant?” To contextualize this, we were problematizing the idea of a good migrant while also recognizing that many nationalists and other people have expectations of what good migrants are, even if those expectations might be subconscious. We unpacked those in the context of apartment hunting.

I feel good about the playtesting, though, again, astounded that it took so long.

This is the statement that the players and I jointly came up with for our playthrough to release out into the world:
“Use what privilege you have to act in concrete, actionable solidarity.”

DISSERTATION: Early June Update and Notes on Lying Fallow

adventures in gaming, autoethnography, critical making, reflective games

I figured it was time for a little update from my notes and documentation!

So, since my last update, the project has moved forward considerably!

I also presented my Reflective Games research on a panel which I chaired at CGSA (the Canadian Games Studies Association) and had some great questions about it from other scholars, and had the chance to chair a talk by Kara Stone about Reparative Game Design and Time (in many forms — queer time, crip time, deep time). We got a lot of good questions and feedback, and I felt quite recharged by the conference.

To simplify things a little, beyond preparing for and presenting at CGSA, here are the…

Egh. As I opened the link to github with the intent of sharing my code repository, I found out about the news that github is being acquired by Microsoft, and I’m not too sure how to feel about that.

Well, at any rate, the code lives there for now, so here’s a timeline of the progress since my last blog post, along with some short descriptions and pictures.

TIMELINE
May 20th-21st:

After finishing Harle, my first puppet, I got to work on a puppet that I came to call Avi. The names of the two colours of fleece that I bought from Fabricville were Guacamole and Chai Tea, and reminded me of the colours of the inside of an avocado. So, despite the fact that Avi looks a lot like a turtle, their look is actually avocado-inspired.

I was invited to an impromptu get-together at a friend’s house, and I knew that I would have a lot of hand-sewing to do, based on Harle. So, I machine-sewed everything possible ahead of time, and brought my pins, fabric, stuffing, needle and thread over to this friend’s house. I have found that I can watch, listen and speak while handsewing, and so while we conversed and others played board games, Avi’s body came together. The next day, I added features like Avi’s eyes and other details.

May 23rd-25th:

My friend Gina suggested that my third puppet should be a red dragon, complete with wings. I had been planning to use red fabric so that the puppets are each sort of in correspondence with CMY/RGB colour theory (Avi, while not Cyan, is both green and yellow). Since Drake was my third puppet, I felt confident enough to experiment with the design, particular when it came to character details. I had this vision of fringes and crests, and, measuring against the puppet’s face, I free-handed a pattern on a piece of cardstock, cut it out, and used the same technique that is used to machine-sew the hands of the puppets to sew my fringes.

Yes, Drake is an obvious name for a dragon-inspired puppet, but I was also thinking of my Toronto friends who are huge Drake fans (in particular, the writers, artists and game designers).

May 26th-28th:
I spent the next few days working on Microbits/Neopixel code, and created a Git repository for this (not very reader-friendly but very small in size) code here.

I used the Microbits coding environment and their drag-and-drop code along with the Adafruit Neopixels package/library for the environment. It was astoundingly easy to get things up and running. I ran into a persistent problem using repetitive loops (like the While loop and the loop that allows you to repeat code multiple times) — the code couldn’t be interrupted. That meant that I couldn’t turn the signal off when I wanted to. That felt clunky, so instead, the LEDs animate a few times, and then continue to be their rainbow selves until the other button is pressed and they are turned off (this is something that I just updated yesterday, but didn’t feel like I should separate from this section — it’ll still get its own timeline entry!).

One major change was deciding to use one neopixel instead of two — basically, I didn’t want to have wires hanging around everywhere and the one LED seemed sufficient for the signal.

May 28th:
Following that, I started to design vests to hold the electronics. While I could have embedded them directly onto the puppets, I felt that it would be better not to damage the puppets and also easy to develop an agile, changeable solution if the electronics were on something that the puppets wore instead. The vests are perhaps not the most aesthetic things in the world, but on the whole, I think that they look fine. I only had time to start the basics before having to pack and get ready for CGSA. At first, I thought of using my cat’s harness pattern, but that seemed to take up too much fabric, and anyway, wasn’t based on the same shape as the puppets. This gave me the idea of using the existing puppet pattern as a base. So, using the larger puppet back pattern, I slightly altered the shapes and left room for arm holes.

May 29th – June 2nd: I was at CGSA!

June 3rd-4th:

A whirlwind of staying up too late and sewing tiny vests for puppets! After designing the shape and ensuring that it worked, I had to design a pocket for the batteries (which I talked through with Tom), a way of making the Microbits buttons easier to use no matter a person’s handedness/what hand they chose to put the puppet on, and decide on LED positioning. Tom helped me talk through the pocket decision, which due to the flexible positioning of the microbits (which are attached by velcro and can be repositioned), had to be in a specific orientation. Last night, I finished all three vests and they’re all in working order.

June 4th: After finishing the vests, I tweaked the code, cleaning it up to reflect the single neopixel, turning down the brightness of the LEDs, and making it so that the second button turned the pixels to “black” or “off” instead of to the very-bright white setting.

And that brings us to now.

NOW!

I am ready to draft rules of play for the game, but I have started to do some reading to familiarize myself a little bit with the literature on psychodrama and on sociodrama (which may actually be more what I am aiming for — systems and the experiences of a group rather than necessarily individual experiences).

In terms of narrowing down the themes of the game, I have been thinking a lot about harassment, bullying, and microaggressions. This, I think, is the confluence of a few factors: some of my friends and colleagues have recently told me about harassment which they are experiencing, my own family is facing harassment and bullying, and I just watched Season 2 of Thirteen Reasons Why.

So, I’ll be doing some reading and thinking before I sit down and commit to the rules.

On the Autoethnography side of things, I wanted to note the difficulty of tracing the influences on my thought process. This thought is based partially on this quote from a recent blog post by Pippin Barr about Translation Studies:

“One of the most difficult things about trying to actually talk about design is that it’s so ephemeral much of the time. Even with the best will in the world and the determination to pause and reflect on your design work in the moment as you make decisions, it can be hard to think of how to even frame what you’re doing, and thus hard to get words out. The most important thing in that context is to actually know what you’re trying to make, for which you can refer to design documents, artist statements, or similar. But even then it can be tricky to make the connections between some specific design decision and the high level statement of purpose.”

To really note all the overheard bits of conversation, all of the media that I am consuming (willingly or not, whether it’s the music playing in the grocery store, or an accidental glance at someone else’s phone, or all the myriad things I might scroll past on social media) that might have an influence on my process, and still have this project be manageable in scope is…just not possible.

What I can do, and what I am doing is documenting, writing notes, and recording conversations when I can clearly say that yes, this is part of my design process. I am taking notes about the things that I am deliberately consuming and thinking about as part of this design process. But there is so much going on, and for both ethical and practical reasons, it can’t all go in. So, the data is necessarily incomplete. I guess I have to make peace with that. I already have hours of conversation recorded.

On another note about productivity and scheduling: I was having a conversation with a friend and fellow designer this morning, and we were talking about what I’ll summarize as the concept of “lying fallow” — I’m not sure if others have used this term before… I feel like the answer to that is yes. These thoughts are also definitely influenced by Kara Stone’s CGSA talk, which is forthcoming as a paper, about Reparative Design. Increasingly, I am coming to recognize the importance of the times where a project is active but I am not working on it. This is something I think that I discussed in my writing earlier this year, in January and February, when I was experiencing burnout symptoms.

Now that this idea has had the time to lie fallow, all of a sudden, things are just coming together. It’s a joy to work on it. It’s a joy to talk about it. But it needed that time. And so did I — I think that, like a field that has given all it has to grow the previous seasons’ crops, I needed to rest. I needed to be taking in information and thinking about the project without worrying too much about time. My past development cycles have definitely been about these bursts of activity, followed by refinement.

Having given six months to each game project (eight in the case of the first one, though I’m hoping to not need all of those extra months, in order to be able to build more of a buffer), and knowing that I also have to do things like writing and editing (for my dissertation, for publication) as well as teaching, and y’know, taking care of my physical and emotional needs, I know that my schedule is a lot. It can be difficult to feel okay about lying fallow, but ultimately, the past year has shown me that it is a necessity.

Your faithful autoethnographer,
Doing the best that they can,
Jess

Dissertation: Autoethnography and Anxiety

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, reflective games, research

It’s been a little over three weeks since my last update, which is because I have been largely focused on reading and writing about larps and nanolarp design from a critical, reflective point of view. I finished a solid first draft of this paper last Thursday, and am letting it sit a bit before I write a talk and make slides based on it for this year’s CGSA conference in Regina. The paper is sitting at around 9500 words…which is a lot more than I intend to keep, so rewriting and editing is a future challenge on the docket.

I’ve been making some progress on my dissertation work since my last post. I have done some experimentation with the micro:bits that I ordered, and found that they do communicate in an easy, friendly way, as advertised.

I built code that displays a simple graphical pattern in LEDs when they receive a transmission from each other. This could be the signal for the “shoulda said” aspect of my first dissertation game. I also ordered a number of new electronic components: three Floras and a number of Neopixel rings that can easily be sewn onto textiles. I also made a sizable Fabricville order of different fleece materials for making puppets. This is reflected in the ads I am being shown on the internet, which have been asking me whether I would like to meet other single seniors in my area.

I have also bought a simple puppet pattern to give me an idea of what will be involved in making a traditional hand puppet. I feel confident in my ability to wing it, but that doesn’t mean that one of these patterns won’t turn out nicely, with a lot less effort on my part.

I’ve received updated ethics approval after submitting amendments regarding group playtesting!

I have also started to think about and draft the Background chapter of my dissertation. Though I’ll no doubt have to add to it before my final dissertation, having a version of the background chapter seems like a good goal, especially since the other activity that I have been engaged in is a great deal of reading. In the past few weeks, that has taken the form of the larp research that I have been doing, but I am now reading Adrienne Shaw’s Gaming at the Edge. A friend of mine has also recommended, based on a brief description of my planned dissertation game, that I read about Psychodrama, and loaned me a book with a chapter on it. Also, a project report about the followup to “Hybridex” has just been published about Hybrid games, and is just perfect for my background chapter.

The reason that one of the words in this blog title is “anxiety” is because I am feeling anxious about my dissertation. I understand that this is probably normal, but, I want to faithfully document these thoughts and feelings as well as I can for the autoethnographic process.

The first feeling, common to grad students and probably faculty members in academia everywhere, is that I am not getting enough done everyday. But, I know that I have been doing well, and doing a lot, on the whole, and making sure to take care of myself and others. I’ve done grocery shopping, gone to the gym, taken my cat for walks, cooked many sumptuous and delicious meals, and generally done a good job at those parts of being an adult human. I took care of my family and friends as well, being there for them emotionally, and finishing a first draft of two separate projects that I have been working on for about two years, with my father and my brother. I also wrote 9500 words in about two weeks. 9500 academic words! That’s a lot — so it shouldn’t surprise me that I’m feeling a bit tired, and haven’t done as much writing on the Background chapter. The reading is going well, and it takes time to read — I have to remind myself of that as well.

The next source of anxiety is related to Tom’s job, and unfortunately, there’s not much I can say about that, except to say that some of my days have been spent helping him, and I have no regrets there.

The next feeling is the feeling of time pressure: if you know me, you may know that I occasionally call myself a reverse procrastinator — that I like to get things done long before they are due so that I don’t have to worry about them. In planning my dissertation timeline, I wrote off January entirely and gave myself an additional two months for my first dissertation game project because I had a feeling that, with everything going on in my personal life, and with this being the first OFFICIAL PROJECT of my dissertation, that there might be some fumbling and stumbling blocks.

This brings us to what seems like a very important source of anxiety: designing the game itself. Generally speaking, when I make a project, I have the freedom to let the project be what it will be, take the time that it will take, and I don’t have to worry that much about making an “amazing” game. I am feeling a lot of pressure, somehow, to make this first dissertation project the best game ever, and feel like somehow the scope has to be bigger than my usual work. But that’s entirely not the point of these projects: I’m not studying whether the game that I make is any good, I am studying the process of making it and archiving it. I’m collecting data about the project and what people think about it. I’m studying my own game-making practice. I know that I will likely make better games, and I will likely make worse ones. I know that I also generally do my best work in small teams with other folks, and that for the most part, I intend these games to be solo. I know that I will be pushing against the limits of my skills, bettering myself, and learning entirely new skills.

Honestly, that’s a lot of pressure to put on six months of work that will include so much of the other necessary parts of grad school, even if they aren’t officially mandated: the reading, the writing, the preparing for conferences, the meetings, the interacting with the rest of my community. And yes, this all feeds into making this game, but at some point, I have to start making it.

Another problem with designing this game that I am having is that because I am putting heavy emphasis on the design of the physical objects involved, part of my brain is wary about working “for nothing”: I don’t want to start working on the physical crafting components, and have to scrap/restart them because the game has totally changed. Usually, that means I would just rapidly prototype with the cheapest available materials and be done with it. But that presents two problems at the moment:

— Fort McMurray is remote. I can’t just pop by the electronics store, the fabric store, or whatever other store to get more materials. There’s also no one or two-day shipping to Fort McMurray. If I need an object, I have to plan for it ahead of time.

— In this game, it feels like the interaction will only “feel” right and complete with the final objects because of their materiality. So, prototyping without a finished object is possible but presents some challenges for the imagination.

Another source of anxiety is working remotely in Fort McMurray: in addition to the difficulties sourcing materials, I am struggling with the fact that I am not in my usual creative environment. I have grown used to making things at the TAG lab, surrounded by other researchers, creators, and friends, and being able to casually discuss my project. I would much rather be working on these projects in Montreal.

…However, all of my crafting materials (and there is a lot of it) are up here in Fort McMurray, so popping back and forth to Montreal as I have been doing since the beginning of last year simply isn’t possible in this context. Or at least, it doesn’t feel very possible without a heck of a lot of money spent on checked baggage or shipping.

Thankfully, I should be moving back to Montreal soon. At the very latest, I am teaching a course in Winter 2019, and so I should be back in the city for my third dissertation project, at least.

This brings me to another very present source of anxiety or trepidation: Will this game be any good? Is “Flip the Script” a good idea? Won’t there be issues with constantly interrupting the play? How should I handle those issues? Should I make something a little less open with a little more story to it? Will this game be meaningful? Will it be reflective and critical? Am I taking advantage of the digital components enough? And, related to that: Am I running out of time?

Well…these are the things that are on my mind, and even just writing about them as been helpful. I hope this documentation will be helpful to future Jess as they write their dissertation. Certainly, the discussion about time limits, and the uncertainty about designing to spec and within certain limitations (that it has to be a game that explores physical-digital hybrid design, that it has to be made in roughly six months, that it should be about critical, reflective subjects) reminds me of my work with Rilla about critical game design, where a number of designers designed according to a prompt that we provided (you can read our chapter in Game Design Research)

Your faithful autoethnographer,
Jess